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Happy Remembrance Day

Happy Remembrance Day

The Canadian version of Veteran’s Day (sort of), today marks Remembrance Day, a pseudo-holiday (banks are closed, but thats about it) meant to bring respect to those lost in wars past. Heather Menzies wrote an op-ed in The Ottawa Citizen yesterday that I felt was an appropriate holiday-themed post. Its essentially an edited version of the speech she gave at Concordia University’s fall convocation.. and its as poignant a call for inner peace as they come. The entire article after the jump…

A Canadian soldier pins on a poppy during a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2006. Canada got into Afghanistan much the way the First World War began. The machinery of diplomacy was overwhelmed by the rush to war, writes Heather Menzies. CREDIT: John D McGugh, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

A Canadian soldier pins on a poppy during a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2006. Canada got into Afghanistan much the way the First World War began. The machinery of diplomacy was overwhelmed by the rush to war, writes Heather Menzies.

Ninety years ago next month, in a trench somewhere in war-locked Europe, my great-uncle Evan Bayne gathered together a few precious things.

He poured the milk he had obtained into his mess mug, and into it, he cut shavings off the last square of chocolate he’d saved from a care package. He lit the short stub of a candle he’d salvaged, and wedged it out of the wind next to the dirt wall. Finally, and perhaps with a smile on his face, he held his mug from which he’d soon be sipping hot chocolate over the flame.

Then the ground shook from a mortar blast, and a clod of putrid mud fell into his mug.

He didn’t tell me whether he broke down and cried. Yet his carefully planned Christmas treat for himself was ruined, his bit of peace was shattered.

I’m remembering this story partly because of recent sabre-rattling about a possible Third World War, the menacing miasma of the so-called “war on terror” and the renewed status of the arms trade to both the global and the Canadian economy. In our time of remembrance tomorrow, it might be useful to remember lessons of the First World War, the exhausted end of which we commemorate in our annual rituals and silence.

The first lesson of this war, and perhaps of all wars, is that the war need not have been declared in the first place. Time historian Stephen Kern has revisited the evidence of those crucial weeks and hours that followed from the gunshot that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

Mr. Kern argues that an avoidable war became an inevitable war in part because of two new technologies: the telegraph and telephone. Their instant communication lent urgency and an authority to those people who think fast and strategically, namely the army chiefs of staff. It was their influence that caused an ultimatum to be telegraphed to the Serbs (the first of five dispatched over the next 12 days) threatening war within 48 hours. Arguing too for a quick pre-emptive strike as the most cost-effective measure to contain the pan-Serbian movement before it destabilized the whole region, they dispatched telegrams to begin mobilization as soon as possible. By the time the German kaiser got in touch with the Russian czar with a joint view to have the conflict resolved at the Hague Conference, it was deemed “technically impossible” to stop the mobilization process.

Equally, Mr. Kern argues, these fast lines of communication sidelined the traditional voices of diplomacy, steeped in a culture of listening and of fine-tuning gestures and the choice of words through face-to-face conversations, to find and tease open a crack of possibility, to cultivate a middle ground, a diplomatic solution. He quotes from Ernest Satow’s 1917 book, A Guide to Diplomatic Practice: “The moral qualities — prudence, foresight, intelligence, penetration, wisdom — of statesmen and nations have not kept pace with the development of the means of action at their disposal (notably) the rapidity of communication by telegraph and telephone. These latter leave no time for reflection or consultation, and demand an immediate and often a hasty decision on matters of vital importance.”

I am among the many, perhaps millions, of Canadians who have been dismayed — and puzzled — at the sudden shift in the face Canada presents to the world: from representing the “soft” power of peace-building in the Lester Pearson and Lloyd Axworthy tradition, to now, waging war. And so I have read with great interest Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang’s recent book, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar that examines the cause of this. I detect many echoes of the lesson I’ve just outlined in the current situation.

The consensus seems to be that Canada got itself into an emphatically military role in Afghanistan partly because of Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada’s chief of defence staff. Because his leadership was “so strong, so strategic and so focused,” the authors argue, “it has unbalanced the relationship between civilians and the military” — such that “it is the military that is forging policy” when it should be civilians — and political leaders answerable to Canadians through Parliament.

But the story is infinitely more complex than a few run-away soldiers good at sound bites. There’s another factor I want to explore, one that will bring all this a little closer home, and at the same time hark back to the war where my Uncle Evan was gassed nearly a century ago. In their book, Ms. Stein and Mr. Lang argue that the decisive strategic thinking of Gen. Hillier gained the prominence it did equally because the other two institutions of Canada’s international relations, development through CIDA and diplomacy through Foreign Affairs, were essentially not there. It wasn’t just their slower pace of decision-making. Cutbacks and over-bureaucratization, they argue, have rendered them “dysfunctional,” “debilitated” and “demoralized.”

These words are familiar to me from the research I’ve done over the last several years on stress. A combination of doing more with less because of cutbacks, plus generally doing more, more, more in a 24-7 on-line work environment has produced an epidemic of stress that is costing the economy billions in lost productivity and mistakes.

Stress is not a new phenomenon. It first gained broad attention as a disease state in the trenches of the First World War, as shell shock or battle fatigue. Then, it was the sometimes 24-7 bombardments, the sudden jolts of sniper fire or the walls of a trench collapsing.

Now, it’s the 24-7 stream of get this, do this, change this. The core problem is, as Dr. Archibald Hart wrote in the late 1990s, “physiological disintegration.” It’s the loss of inner equilibrium and balance essential for focus, presence, sustained concentration and engagement. I was struck by how often the authors Stein and Lang used the word focus in their book, including in their assertion that “the absence of strong, focused institutions with critical and independent voices deprives the government of advice it needs …”

The public discussion on stress has only recently shifted from how stress makes individuals sick to how it makes organizations sick and dysfunctional. One study documented a 10-point drop in employees’ IQ due to so many e-mail interruptions. Another study, reported in a 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review looked at “presenteeism,” a variation on absenteeism in which people show up for work so brain dead with fatigue or so lost in focus and perspective that at best they merely go through the motions and, at worst, waste others’ time and make mistakes. According to this article, it’s costing the economy $150 billion U.S. a year.

Some research that a colleague, Janice Newson, at York University and I did in 2001 shines a deeper light on this. It’s a study of academics’ time in a wired campus environment, and through a combination of survey questions and interviews, it uncovered a disturbing trend toward connection without presence and engagement. Fifty-eight per cent reported that their ability to stay focused on their work had decreased, 51 per cent said they no longer had enough chunks of free time in which to think, and nearly 30 per cent identified with the phrases “I can’t slow down enough to be in touch with my innermost thoughts” and “everybody I know is too busy to just talk.”

Students today aren’t just credentials on legs. They are a set of relationships, participants in the larger conversations on what matters, and it’s secondary to my mind whether the locus of those conversations is Parliament and foreign policy, hospitals and health-care policies or corporations and human-resource policies.

This time of year we often speak of remembrance, but we should also honour the other way of saying and writing the word remembrance — as re-memberance, reintegrating not just the body parts, but the mind and body so that they are attuned to each other. This is essential for focus and that inner dialogue between you and yourself that the philosopher Hannah Arendt maintains is the heartbeat of thinking for yourselves, not as others would have us think. And this, I would suggest is our responsibility as citizens: to be present and accountable, simultaneously to ourselves and, through that, to the public good, the welfare of our world and our planet.

That’s the torch I would urge students to carry forward: modelling peace and equilibrium in how they live, in how they work and communicate, and championing policies that will foster this in organizational systems and in institutions of governance.

It is my dream that the global economy could become a place of balance and equilibrium. After all, it’s from the ranks of the angry young men displaced from traditional local economies or unemployed in the global one that organizations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban recruit so many of the “insurgents” who enact the modern form of war.

That’s also why I’ll wear the white as well as the red poppy tomorrow. The red symbolizes the blood spilled among the poppies of Flanders Fields and the white, adopted by the Women’s Co-operative Guild in 1933, symbolizes a commitment to peace and non-violence in resolving differences.

And how do we begin to foster this? Through conversation and stories, stories like the one I began with.

The personal is political. Stories can honour the particulars left out of theories and categorical concepts like casus belli. Stories can open the cracks of possibility and of hope that we can somehow find a way out of this mess. As First Nations writer Thomas King said in his 2003 Massey Lectures, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

It’s a truth worth remembering.

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